In last week’s  New Yorker, deputy “Talk of the Town” editor Lauren Collins set up a story about Ivy Leaguers in the Obama administration —“Team of Brainiacs“— by stirring up some trouble over one of the recently released Nixon tapes.  Ms. Collins refers to the 18 May 1972 recording of “Richard Nixon (Whittier ’34, Duke Law ’37) excoriating Henry Kissinger (Harvard B.A. ’50, M.A. ’52, Ph.D. ’54)”:

NIXON: The Ivy League Presidents? Why, I won’t let those sons-of-bitches ever in this White House again. Never, never. None of them. They’re finished. The Ivy League schools are finished. . . . Henry, I would not have had them in. Don’t do that again. . . . They came out against us when it was tough. . . . Don’t ever go to an Ivy League school again, ever. Never, never, never.

David Skorton, the president of Cornell, was apprised of Nixon’s comments over the phone. “My mouth is open,” Skorton said, after the line went quiet. “Gosh, what a negative thing to say. Ivy League schools, like all good universities, teach people to think and to reason, and why would anyone be against that?”

The taped exchange was widely reported as the latest example of Nixon’s paranoia and anti-intellectualism, and President Skorton’s was the expected and widespread reaction to its revelation.  But no one seemed to have the time,  interest, or intellectual rigor —not to mention the plain old curiosity— to do a little research to discover the actual context of RN’s remarks in terms of what was happening at the time.

In fact, a helluva lot was happening.  The steam RN was letting off that May had a significant backstory.

The late spring and early summer of 1972 were the cruelest and most critical months of the Nixon administration up to that time, when RN saw his policies being tested and his resolution being challenged at home and abroad in ways they had not been before.

On 30 March, flush with a major infusion of Soviet arms, the North Vietnamese flooded over the internationally-recognized DMZ with an estimated 120,000 troops and pushed deep into South Vietnam.  This was clearly a calculated move on the part of the North Vietnamese who were worried —not without reason— that their Soviet suppliers were losing ardor for the cause.

After RN’s successful surprise trip to Beijing in February, the Soviets had rushed to arrange a summit of their own —now scheduled for June— and there could be no doubt that RN would be expecting some serious reduction of their support for North Vietnam.

RN saw this North Vietnamese offensive as a make or break situation for American credibility.  He was prepared to let the Soviets cancel the summit if they weren’t prepared to accept the incompatibility between their desire for better relations with the US and their determination to tweak the Chinese by supporting North Vietnam.  That’s how RN saw it; others saw it as the opportunity to make one last stand, hope for the best, but be prepared to cut losses and move on.

In RN, RN wrote:

Kissinger…perhaps to cheer me up, said that even if the worst happened and we had to pull out in the face of an enemy victory, I would still be able to claim credit for having conducted an honorable winding down of the war by the dignified and secure withdrawal of 500,000 troops.  Most people would give me credit for that, and everyone would be so glad the war was over that the domestic situation would not be impossible to handle.

I considered this prospect too bleak even to contemplate.  “I don’t give a damn about the domestic reaction if that happens,” I said, “because if it does, sitting in this office wouldn’t be worth it.  The foreign policy of the United States will have been destroyed, and the Soviets will have established that they can accomplish what they are after by using the force of arms in third countries.”  Defeat, I said, was simply not an option.

In addition to the course of the war and the credibility of American foreign policy being at stake, it was only half a year away from the presidential election.  The situation was so extreme that, in April, RN talked to HAK about the possibility that he might not run for re-election. He recorded that conversation in his diary:

Later on in the afternoon I had a pretty candid talk with Henry about what we had to look forward to in the future.  I said that what we were really looking at was a cancellation of the summit and going hard right on Vietnam, even up to a blockade.

I said that under these circumstances, I had an obligation to look for a successor.

Over the weekend of 15 April, RN ordered “Freedom Porch Bravo” — a series of B-52 bombing raids on munitions targets around Hanoi and its port of Haiphong.  Everyone was on tenterhooks waiting to see how the Soviets would respond, and whether they would pull the plug on the upoming Summit.

It was in that context that HAK met on Monday the 17th with the eight Ivy League presidents (MIT’s prexy joined them to make it ten at the table) at the White House to explain the administration’s policies and goals.  The nine, predictably, emerged from the meeting and, exploiting the cachet of the setting, condemned the bombing and called for America’s immediate withdrawal.  At a time when he was engaged in a major military operation aimed at impressing the enemy with the seriousness of American resolve, RN can hardly have been expected to react equably to the White House being used as a venue to protest his policies.

The pressures on RN —from abroad, at home, and within his own administration— were so intense they’re exhausting (albeit exciting) just to read about.  It’s hard to imagine what they must have been like to experience.   So a little venting a few weeks later, a few days before he left for Moscow for the Summit his critics said would never take place (and in a conversation that he never imagined would ever be made public) shouldn’t be that surprising or difficult to understand.

Besides, despite the convenient lapses of memory and the generous applications of retrospective whitewash, the record of the American academy in general —and the Ivy League in particular  — during the late 1960s was far from admirable.

Roger Rosenblatt, who at the time was Master of Dunster House and on the short list for the presidency of Harvard, has written, as much in anger as in sorrow, about the shameful and self-interested capitulation on the part of a distinguished university and faculty to the barbarians within its gates.

In Coming Apart: A Memoir of the Harvard Wars of 1969 (Little, Brown and Company, 1997), he describes the “atmosphere in which every reasonable decision was overturned, every civility abandoned, every tradition made expendable, and in which no one trusted anyone else.”

The odd thing is that none of the destruction would have occurred had there not emerged a strange conspiracy between those who wanted power and those who readily ceded it to them. The fact that student radicals wanted to take over Harvard, or all of America, for that matter, did not condemn them. However naïve much of their revolution was, for the majority of them it was sincere. Even most of those who for personal reasons protested Vietnam to avoid fighting there were sincere in their objective opposition.

Yet they never could have created so much chaos at Harvard had the administration and most of the faculty not allowed them to. The administration cooperated with the people who wanted to take the place apart merely by overreacting and behaving stupidly. But the faculty’s role was subtler and more morally careless. There were certain critical moments in those two months when professors had the opportunity to instruct their students usefully merely by voting the right vote or by saying the right things — things in which they supposedly believed. Yet, for the most part, they offered no opposition to what they disagreed with, as if to tell the students: “If you want it, take it.” Liberalism rolled over on its back like a turtle awaiting the end. I do not know why, but there was an impulse running under the events of that spring to let things go to hell, and it was acted upon by young and old alike.

Maybe that’s a bit of what RN was talking about.

And as for President Skorton, who made the mistake of giving a quote to a reporter with an agenda, perhaps he might look homeward in order to understand some of RN’s frustrations.  Dr. Skorton was a twenty year old pre-med student at Northwestern University on 19 April 1969, when  armed black militant students took over Cornell’s Student Union building, demanding that the University establish a black studies program and grant them complete amnesty for their efforts.

Thomas Sowell, who was teaching there at the time, has referred to this as “The Day Cornell Died“:

No one who was at Cornell University in the spring of 1969 is ever likely to forget the guns-on-campus crisis that shocked the academic community and the nation. Bands of militant black students forcibly evicted visiting parents from Willard Straight Hall on the Cornell campus and seized control of it to back up their demands. Later, after the university’s capitulation, the students emerged carrying rifles and shotguns, their leader wearing a bandoleer of shotgun ammunition. It was a picture that appeared on the covers of national magazines and was even reprinted overseas.

What happened behind the scenes was at least as shocking. Death threats were phoned to the homes of professors who had opposed their previous actions or demands. Shots were in fact fired into the engineering building.

Maybe this was on RN’s mind when he let off some steam about the Ivy presidents (including Cornell’s newly-inaugurated Corson, whose predecessor had resigned in the wake of the capitulation to the armed protesters’ demands and refusal even to reprimand them for their actions), who were fearless when it came to criticizing his policies to the press but who folded when it came to protecting their own institutions from the predations of marauders.


(The  famous picture above  —“Campus Guns”— by Steve Starr of the AP in Albany, NY, won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for news photography.  The takeover of the Student Union had been precipitated by a cross-burning in front of a black student residence hall.  Cornell’s house clearly needed some putting in order.  The University administration and faculty caved to the radicals’ demands, and the scars are still felt by many today.  The event is covered in considerable detail by Donald Alexander Downs in Cornell ’69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University, published by the Cornell University Press in 1999.)